An organization called Save the Downs has been formed to sway the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers against approving a mitigation bank for the land which includes the San Luis Rey Downs golf course.
The group’s first meeting took place March 14. Save the Downs will meet every Friday afternoon at the Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce office (the board of the Fallbrook chamber has not officially taken a position against the mitigation bank, but during the public comment period the chamber’s executive committee wrote a letter in opposition to the proposal) with the meetings commencing at 4 p.m. Jon Frandell is the chair of Save the Downs, Jeri Walz is the vice-chair, Deborah Howard is the secretary, and Scott Meisterlin is the treasurer.
“The mission is to stop the destruction of San Luis Rey Downs golf course,” Frandell said. “It’s just opposition to the mitigation bank.”
The San Luis Rey Downs golf course is currently owned by the Vessels family, which has reached an option agreement with the mitigation bank management company Conservation Land Group, Inc. (CLG). CLG has filed an application with the Army Corps of Engineers to create the Moosa Creek Mitigation Bank. The property is approximately 185 acres, including the golf course, with approximately 38 acres of wetlands and 5.75 acresof non-wetland waters. If the Army Corps of Engineers approves the land as a mitigation bank, CLG would rehabilitate and re-establish riverline and depressional wetlands and restore wetland and non-wetland riparian habitat. Developers of property elsewhere could purchase mitigation credits which would fulfill those projects’ off-site mitigation requirements.
The Army Corps of Engineers will evaluate impacts to the public interest during its decision whether to authorize the land as a mitigation bank. The public comment period included a February 24 public hearing; Frandell estimated that between 300 and 400 people attended that meeting and noted that only one member of the audience was in favor of the mitigation bank.
Frandell, Walz, and Howard began holding meetings between themselves following that public hearing. Those three-person meetings led to the creation of Save the Downs, and the group’s March 14 meeting attracted approximately a dozen people.
The objective of Save the Downs is to convince the Army Corps of Engineers to deny the petition by providing legitimate reasons why the destruction of the golf course would create negative impacts in the areas of economics, recreational use, wildlife and watershed protection, and the needs and welfare of the community.
“The thought of that being destroyed and put back into wetlands is just unbelievable,” Frandell said. “This is not the right thing.”
The economic consequences could include a loss of golf course jobs, declining property values with associated lost property tax revenue for local and regional public agencies, and increased fire insurance premiums for nearby homeowners. “The economic impact is tremendously negative,” Frandell said.
Some golf industry professionals believe that the building of golf courses after Tiger Woods increased the sport’s popularity was not matched by increased participation and that some golf courses must be closed for the industry as a whole to remain viable. Frandell noted that the SCGA golf course in Murrieta was recently sold to a buyer who will keep that facility as a golf course and that the Warner Springs Ranch Resort golf course which closed before being sold will soon be reopening. “The idea that the golf courses are a losing proposition is just wrong,” Frandell said.
Because of Endangered Species Act mitigation requirements, the San Luis Rey Downs golf course may have more sale value as a mitigation bank than as a golf course, so if the mitigation bank is approved and the option is exercised the Vessels family would make more money selling the golf course to CLG than to an entity who would retain it as a golf course. “We believe in property rights,” Frandell said.
A situation five days before the first Save the Downs meeting brought to mind the adage that the reason America has Daylight Savings time is that 60 million golfers have more political clout than two million farmers, so the closure of the San Luis Rey Downs golf course could have a national impact on future mitigation policy and the effort to save the golf course has national support rather than just the support of local golfers and the Bonsall community.
“All the developments that have golf courses or even parks could be destroyed for mitigation objectives,” Frandell said.
“Any open space could be threatened,” Frandell said. “This is just the first test case.”
Some golfers play the San Luis Rey Downs links solely for recreational purposes, but the golf course also hosts fundraising tournaments and practices or meets for local high schools and the Cal State San Marcos golf team.
The wildlife and watershed issues include the impact to existing habitat during restoration efforts. “What they’re proposing is a habitat where all the endangered species reside,” Frandell said. “All of these animals exist today.”
An estimated 350,000 cubic yards of dirt would need to be moved during the habitat restoration process. Frandell noted that such work would not only impact existing habitat but would also create dust which would adversely affect the health of asthmatics, children, and other nearby residents.
Frandell added that Endangered Species Act regulations were intended to protect remaining habitat rather than to return disturbed land to its natural state. “That is not the intent of any of these,” Frandell said. “It’s the protection of what hasn’t been developed.”
Frandell noted that the protection of the land in perpetuity could be threatened by floods or by increased costs which deplete the endowment used for maintenance.
“It’s our community. If we don’t stand up, nobody else will,” Frandell said.